The bill that would require labeling of all foods containing genetically modified products was soundly defeated last week in Washington; now the battle moves on to Oregon, in a third attempt on the Left Coast. (A labeling bill in California was defeated previously.) Two New England states have passed labeling bills, but at least one more in the region will have to before it becomes law. My best friend lives in Washington, and was very much in favor of a labeling bill. But his educational background is social science and while he’s very well-read I’m not sure that he groks the concept of empirical data. For the data is all one-sided, showing that GMOs have absolutely no negative impact on human nutrition or health. The “foodists” tried to have all milk produced by cows receiving rBST to be labeled; failing that now the milk companies label milk that’s not from treated cows. Rather than labeling all foods produced with the use of GMOs, perhaps a middle ground would be to label foods made from non-GMO products. I think that consumers would be surprised at how few processed foods would be so labeled since over 90% of corn and soybeans are GM. Even the EU is softening it’s once-intractable stance on GMOs, and currently there’s a proposal to legalize the use of GM corn. (I don’t think there are enough soybeans grown in EU countries for this crop to be much of an issue.)
October is often one of the nicest months of the year and more so in 2013 than most any October in recent memory. Here in our little vacation community there’s a bit of sadness that comes with October because the “snowbirds”–retired folks who winter in the south and are here at Oak Point from spring through fall–are leaving. We lose quite a few summer residents on or just before Labor Day weekend as schools and colleges restart, but these are younger families. The folks leaving in October are retired, and their age plus actuarial statistics are reminders that not all may be returning next spring. Katy and I will leave in mid-November; we’re the last of the “seasonal residents” to leave in the fall and the first to return in the spring, in late March. We’ve discovered that since we winter in Virginia, this schedule results in our seeing spring and fall arrive twice each year. For when we get to Virginia–North Chesterfield, just south of Richmond–some of the oak trees won’t have their fall colors yet, each spring the magnolia blossoms are falling by the time we head back north, often to remaining traces of the winter’s snow. This year there will only be three “Rounders”–folks that stay here year-around–in Oak Point, as an octogenarian couple who’ve lived here for many years have been talked into spending the winter with family in Connecticut. It’s not just the weather that makes Virginia attractive in the winter, but the lack of things to do around here once the boats, lawnmower and leaf rake have been put away for the season.
It’s been a wonderful fall for farmers to harvest; even the couple of big rains were far enough apart that they posed only slight delays. The warm weather has permitted both corn and soybeans to “finish”–even soybeans planted mid-June or a bit later. I haven’t checked with farmers about yields, but looking at the standing crop it appears that yields will be very good.
One of the more common questions I get is about asphalt floors for bunker and drive-over piles. We had our first asphalt floor installed in two new bunker silos at Miner Institute twenty years ago and since then have built several new bunker silos, all with asphalt floors. The only silo we had with a concrete floor was resurfaced with asphalt and is doing just fine. In fact, Miner Institute is in the process of enlarging this silo and will use asphalt; although farmers don’t often realize it until too late, concrete is a temporary floor; temporary since it’s lime-based and silage acids will start eating it away with the first load of forage dumped into it. Asphalt is impervious to silage acids, and I’ve seen asphalt floors in bunker silos that are over 25 years old and still in mint condition–I defy anyone to tell whether the floor is two year old or over ten times that. To anyone planning on using concrete for a silo floor, I ask—Why?
There’s a good leaflet available for anyone planning on installing an asphalt floor in a silo. The URL is below, or you can download it by going to the asphaltroads.org website and looking for publication IM038, “Hot-mix asphalt for silage floors and feeding bunkers”. It’s a good publication but I’m a bit prejudiced since I helped in the preparation of it.
I really wonder about those farmers who apparently don’t check the calendar before they plant. This morning, on the 4th of July, I drove past soybean fields that were just emerging, so were planted in the closing days of June. There’s simply no way these fields will mature, and it’s extremely doubtful that they plant the soybeans in late June with the full intention of harvesting for silage. Not that soybean silage is a terrible forage, just that I don’t think that was their intention. Soybeans are a relatively new crop to many farmers in this region, so I guess the learning curve is still pretty steep. It’s about to get flattened a bit, as well as their hopes of selling high-priced soybeans this fall. Not only will soybeans not be nearly as dear as they were a year ago, but a killing frost is almost certain to arrive before the beans are ready to harvest as a grain crop. What I expect will happen (unfortunately) is that instead of harvesting them for forage, they’ll continue to hope against hope until a killing frost does occur, at which point they’ll have missed the best time to harvest them for silage.
Not coincidentally, this may be a year when soybean silage will look pretty good, because it was so difficult to make first cut hay crop silage before the crop was far past the “milk cow forage” stage. Lots of first cut “junk” was ensiled in late June, and recent weather hasn’t been good for second cut for those farmers able to get the first crop off on time. Many of these farmers will desperately need a good corn silage crop…
I’ve long been a fan of silage inoculants, of the opinion that they return much more in reduced silage losses and/or improved silage quality than they cost. Most inoculants cost about a buck per ton of forage, with some less than half that and some more than twice that. However, research has shown that properly inoculated and ensiled forages actually increase milk production, and dairy scientists are beginning to learn the mechanism behind the performance increase. It has to do with gas production in the rumen, that barrel-sized container of microorganisms. Gas production efficiency is improved by the results of some–perhaps most–silage inoculants. Recent USDA research suggests that silage inoculants return about $8.00 in increased milk production for each $1.00 spent on the inoculant. That’s at a milk price of $16.00/cwt, which is somewhat below the current “mailbox” price of about $20.00 in much of dairy country. Of course this depends on the price of the inoculant, the crop it’s applied to, and forage management from windrow to feedbunk, but with these figures it’s hard to imagine that over the long haul silage inoculants wouldn’t be economical. They say that nothing is foolproof to the sufficiently talented fool, but the dairy industry is a tough enough business that the fools have long since bombed out. My opinion, and the recommendation I’ve made countless times: Do some investigating to make sure that the inoculant you’re buying is research-proven, then follow directions closely since over-application is a waste of money while under-application reduces (in some cases maybe eliminates) effectiveness. Which forage species will benefit from silage inoculants? All of them!
Two distressing items recently appearing in the agricultural press are almost certainly related. First were the results of recent farmer surveys finding that while farmers were doing a slightly better job of complying with required refuge acres for Bt corn hybrids, there was still a sizable percentage that were completely ignoring them. And it’s easy to cheat (for that’s what it is) since if a farmer buys only Bt seed corn from a dealer he has to assume that the farmer is buying his non-Bt seed corn from another seed company.
The second item reports that in the Corn Belt about half of corn farmers will use a soil insecticide where they’re planting Bt-rootworm corn. They’re calling it “cheap insurance” and maybe it is, but the insurance is only needed since Bt isn’t doing the job we thought it was going to. But how much of this is due to the growing number of confirmed cases of Bt-resistant corn rootworms? First discovered in Iowa, but now spreading. It this a failure of the technology, or the farmers’ use (or rather misuse) of it? As someone who has repeatedly defended the use of GM technology to my “foodie” and organic-loving friends–twice in the past week or so–I sure don’t like to see them get this ammunition for their war on GM crops.
As you head for the corn field in the coming weeks, consider these points:
1. Carefully and faithfully observe refuge requirements. Yeah, I know it may be inconvenient but you did sign the refuge agreement.
2. Don’t use the same Bt technology year after year; there are different GM “events” for rootworm control, with more coming down the pike soon. Rotate these events to delay/prevent the development of Bt-resistant insects. No rootworm control–GM or insecticide–is needed in 1st and often 2nd year corn. And unless rootworm problems are severe, the 1250 rate of seed treatments (Poncho, Cruiser Extreme, etc.) will provide good control.
3. Rotate! Your cheapest–and often best–corn is “sod corn”, for several reasons including soil tilth, pest control and nitrogen availability. Unless your land is very stony, the costs involved in a 3-year corn-alfalfa rotation vs. 4,5 or more years of continuous corn often make the shorter rotation more profitable.
Mark Twain once said: “The trouble with the world is not that people know too little; it’s that they know so many things that just aren’t so.”
There’s a lot of that going around, including in agriculture. Two examples of “things that just aren’t so”:
1. “The dairy milk:feed ratio is a good way to indicate profitability in the dairy industry.” Except that it’s not; there are several measures that are much more indicative if farmers are making money. Ratios are fine, but what’s really important for dairy farmers is how much money is left after the milk check has been deposited and all bills paid.
2. “High grain prices are good for grain farmers.” They may be good in the short run, but one seasoned, well respected grain market analyst predicts that the 2012 runup in grain prices will be looked back on as one of the worst things to happen to grain farmers in the past decade. That’s because of two facts: First, when the price of a commodity gets high enough, production will occur by farmers and in regions that haven’t grown that commodity before. Or as former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz famously said:”The best cure for high prices is high prices. If the price of eggs gets high enough, even the roosters start layin’ ‘em.” Second, as prices of a commodity increase, demand usually decreases. And demand is often very slow to return. It appears that the U.S. will plant record acreages of corn and possibly soybeans. If we do have a good growing season, the combination of record crops and reduced demand could make grain farmers wistfully recalling pre-2012 prices.
Not long before actress Anne Bancroft died she was asked about the secret to her 40-year marriage to Mel Brooks. Here’s what she said: “When I hear the tires of his car come crunching up the stone drive of our house in Connecticut, I visualize him and think: ‘Now the fun begins.’”
What a wonderful relationship they must have had! But as we consider the coming growing season, much the same can be said for corn prices: Now the fun begins. I was in New Hampshire last week speaking at a crop adviser meeting and heard one fellow make the assumption that corn was going to continue to be in the $7.00 range. I couldn’t let that one go, commenting that there’s a good chance that prices would be under $5.00 per acre what with national planting intentions of 99+ million acres of corn. In fact, $5.00 may be on the high side, even if current drought conditions don’t improve much. That’s because demand is down and may well remain depressed. If the drought is eased just a bit by summer rains and the national yield averages 150 bu/acre, corn prices should fall to well below $5.00–possibly closer to $4.00 but this depends on ethanol, feed demand, South American corn yields, etc. What if we have a return to “normal” yields of 160 bu/acre? With almost 100 million acres of corn the fun REALLY begins, as corn could drop to the mid-$3.00 range. And if we have a big corn crop we’re likely to also have a big soybean crop since the 79 million acres of soybeans the experts predict will be planted would also be an all-time record high.
What does this mean for dairy farmers, who are the users of corn and soybeans? Basically, “keep your powder dry” and don’t make long-term decisions based on short-term conditions. Planting some extra corn acreage to harvest for grain in the event that corn prices remain high? Sure, since the extra crop could always be harvested for silage and/or sold. Buying a combine and acquiring a lot of extra cropland in an effort to produce much of the farm’s grain needs? Not so fast. If you do a partial budget I’d plan on figuring corn grain at $4.00, not $7.00. It would take a lot longer to pay for the purchase of land and equipment with corn at $4.00 or less.
While I don’t agree with folks who are willing to pay premium prices for organically-produced foods, I can at least understand their reasoning: No pesticides and no “chemical” fertilizers. But some pesticides, including rotenone, can legally be used in organic production, and I’d much rather have had a chemical fertilizer than livestock manure on the lettuce I eat.
I have a harder time understanding the organic foods lobby’s abhorrence of genetically modified crops, which most often result in the use of fewer pesticides. For instance, corn with the Bt-corn rootworm gene precludes the use of a soil insecticide. Recently one of the (formerly) most vociferous opponents of GM foods, a fellow in England, did a 180 on this issue, admitting after looking at all the data that he was completely wrong in opposing this technology, that a thorough review of research had convinced him that these foods were completely safe. But he’s just one of many… I’m not sure it’s fair to call this issue a “battle” between GM opponents and proponents because at least in the U.S. and increasingly in other countries the use of GM crops has become standard. It’s increasingly difficult to find non-glyphosate resistant soybean varieties; non-resisistant varieties have rapidly become a specialty crop, and there’s a similar trend with corn though I’m not sure we will (or should) approach the 90+ percent GM adoption rate that we have with soybeans. It will be interesting to see if the well-publicized switch in opinion by the British man is a one-off or if it’s a crack in the anti-GM dam.
Several changes are occurring that will have both short- and long-term impacts on food production and consumption. First is population change: We read and hear a lot about the world’s increasing population, with some forecasts that it will peak at 9 billion mid-century while other forecasts say 10 billion by 2011. However, the population is DECLINING in many Western nations including Canada, Australia and most of Western Europe, but also in China and Japan. The situation in Japan is so dire that what’s been happening there has been termed a “demographic death spiral”. And in parts of China there are labor shortages, the result of its decades-old policy of “one family, one child”. At the same time population is exploding in Africa. Therefore, the food situation will worsen in nations that are already short of food, and turning around population trends–either up or down–is a very slow process.
The second change is that parts of the third world area emerging from poverty, and as people have more income the first thing they want to do is eat better. In some cases this means eating more, but often it means an increase in meat consumption. This is particularly the case in China, which is rapidly increasing its pork consumption. (You may not consider China to be a third-world nation, but if you get out of the cities and into the country, as I have, you would quickly change your mind.) So, more people in the poorest nations, and people who want to eat more or better.
Therefore, the challenge for agriculture is to produce much more food, and perhaps more of it in the form of animal protein vs. grain. We’re already cropping much of the arable land on the planet, so the future will be with increased production per unit of farmland. This means improved technologies. But the third change is that government support for agricultural research in the U.S., the world’s unquestioned leader in agricultural innovation and technological advances, is declining at the very time it should be increasing.
What’s wrong with this picture? A lot. Agribusiness has already picked up much of the slack caused by declining public support for agricultural research: For example, the percentage of “public” crop varieties–those developed by Land Grant Colleges–has declined greatly over the past fifty years, replaced by commercial plant breeding programs. But what of the type of research that doesn’t have the potential to increase the bottom line of multinational agricultural corporations? If the public universities and USDA doesn’t do this research, who will? I certainly don’t have any answers…just posing the question…food for thought.